The suicide by hanging of 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez, a Southside high school sophomore, was captured on the teen’s own cell phone, leading his family to believe their son’s death was connected to an insidious social media game that purportedly ends with a call for participants to kill themselves.
Gonzalez was found dead, hanging from his closet on July 8, according to news reports. His cell phone was propped up on a shoe and was used to record and share his suicide.
School districts and police departments across the nation have issued warnings to their communities after evidence of participation in the Blue Whale Challenge shows up on the computers or phones of local teens.
Gonzalez was scheduled to start his sophomore year next month. Southside Independent School District spokesman Randy Escamilla said Tuesday that he had not heard of the Blue Whale Challenge before the incident. The district did not plan to issue a statement out of respect for the victim’s family members, Escamilla said.
The origin of the Blue Whale Challenge, which supposedly poses obstacle course challenges over a period of weeks to those who participate, has attracted participants in various states and countries. Some news sources claim that as many as 130 young Russians have taken their own lives, though these reports are unsubstantiated.
“When it comes to the well-being of our children – our students – we can never be too careful,” wrote Danbury Public Schools Superintendent Sal Pascarella in a letter sent home to parents in his Connecticut school district.
British news network SkyNews interviewed one young man whose parents intervened before he completed the final task. “You become a bit of a zombie,” Oleg Kapaev told SkyNews.
Gonzalez’s family said they are certain their son was involved in the Blue Whale Challenge, calling the teen’s death a chilling reminder to parents to be aware of their children’s social media activity, according to a Facebook post by Jorge Gonzalez, Isaiah Gonzalez’s father.
“Don’t just talk to them about it,” Jorge Gonzalez wrote. “Look at your kids’ phones and social media.”
It is unclear exactly how the game works, and social media sites like Instagram now issue a warning to users searching for the Blue Whale Challenge via hashtags. While some students claim that participants become involved by friends tagging them on a social media site, others have initiated their own involvement. Either way, once inside, the game becomes quite powerful, according to participants like Kapaev.
Because the internet eliminates geographic barriers to communication, the emergence of social media sites advocating suicide may present a new risk to vulnerable people who may otherwise not have been exposed to these potential hazards.
The National Institute of Health has studied the influence of social media on suicidal behaviors in adolescents, finding several ways that social media can increase risk for suicidal behavior, including cyberbullying and suicide pacts.
Many teens do not understand when they have lost control of a dangerous situation, Alamo Heights Junior School counselor Lisa Lucas said. Their pre-frontal cortex is not yet fully developed, which makes them more likely to engage in risky behavior without considering consequences, she said.
A concern for parents and school officials is that the Blue Whale Challenge could draw in those who are already considering self-harm.
The game is one of many ways that vulnerable teens can be ushered by peers along that dangerous pathway. Message boards and forums have been used to spread information on how to die by suicide.
Suicide risk is higher for people with a family history of suicide, or who have had a friend or someone they were close to – virtually or otherwise – attempt or die from suicide.
Whether or not a bully or game influenced their actions, experts remind the public that a person who attempts suicide or dies by suicide is experiencing deep emotional pain, isolation, hopelessness, or mental illness – or all of these. The American Society for Suicide Prevention reports that 90% of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
While there are no indications that Gonzalez suffered from a mental illness, he belonged to a vulnerable demographic: young teens. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die.
A nationwide Centers for Disease Control survey of high school students in the United States found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reported trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated in emergency rooms across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries.
The best way to prevent suicide is through early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of depression and other mental health conditions.
In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function.
About 30% of girls and 20% of boys totaling 6.3 million teens have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The NIMH found that suicidal behavior among youth was largely associated with major depression, eating disorders, anxiety, substance use and behavior disorders, as well as physical health problems.